Cover Photo: Paddle Me by Alina Stefanescu

Paddle Me

How marriage changes the water.

We were young and the sky burned fast; a wildfire extinguished by night. Your eyes opened wide, hand cupping my chin, pressing me against the hard outer shell of your Honda hatchback, your mouth saying, “I’ve never felt like this before,” as if each syllable was a separate sentence and you’d only just coined each word. 

I knew what you meant because the world was ending and our bodies were flints for the final spark.

We were young, moonstruck,  and madly in love with our bodies’ ability to ignite the darkness. Sexual desire puts us in the position of needing another person very much. We are amazed by the urgency of this need.

You had dated other girls before me, held their polished hands, kissed their strawberry—flavored lips. I knew better than the novel heroines. Not once did I presume to be the first and only inspiration in your teenage brain.

Romantic passion differs from sexual desire in that it puts us in a position of needing a particular other very much. That night on the street, you didn’t need me at this moment but suddenly discovered you needed me for every such moment. Because you didn’t want that moment to end. Because sex failed to sate it.

Romantic passion puts us in the real (not fantasied) position of dependence on another.  I washed your underwear by hand with bar soap at the small water spout in the marina. We were backpacking across Europe and sleeping a broken sailboat on the coast of France. Though the boat didn’t move-- and not even the toilet was functional-- we felt like kings rising from the berth at Cap D’Antibes. When I hung your underwear to dry from the side of the sailboat, you sighed as if my lips had just left a private part. 

We were past sex-- still swarmed by the thickness of it but also past it because you wanted so much and used big words like “forever,” as place marks, ways to say the conversation would be continued. Candlelight. The pillow of each other. The warmth of a well-known perspiration more beguiling than frankincense. 

Perhaps you enjoyed the ways I tended to you as acknowledgment of your dependence. Acceptance said look I will wash your undies and let you watch. Said be still love, be still and don’t worry about needing me too much because look how I can bend and break to suit you. I am nothing if not an acrobat of unmet needs.

Your hair changed from blonde to black. Your skin went from Anglo to olive. Funny how your fingers-- even the nails bitten down to the nubs-- stayed the same though you learned how to play my flesh where once you’d mostly known how to play the piano. You became a different man-- not the same man at all. I said forever to this man at your expense. 

You persisted, a man, the same, but different. I married your jaded version certain that his cowardice would protect us from needing too much from the other. If it didn’t protect us, at least it might delegitimize secret needs and keep us from speaking them.

But that’s not the story of why I married him. That’s not the reason I married you. You and him— the same. Still, different.

This is a rationalization, a lie which I’ve stitched up to explain why the fastest way to find myself alone is to cry a little. 

“You need time alone,” the words fall like latex band-aids from slightly chafed lips and I know you are looking for bee butter, already half-out the door, scouring the house for relief. But looking for petroleum jelly to soothe chapped lips is not the same thing as looking for me. 

Romantic passion sustains itself through a tiny sliver of hope, the effulgent hue of trust, the willingness to value another above the self we tend to protect from trespass or encroachment. I’ve tried to explain what it’s like for me. When a person cries, they inadvertently give a part of themselves which they’ve lost the ability to hold back. Like water trickling downstream, add a few boulders and you’ve gone from trickling to rushing, from riffles to rapids. Any gap in terrain becomes a waterfall. 

Lust is more soignee— it makes do with what it finds, insinuates itself between stones to cushion the cascade. Tears are easy foreplay. That’s one way of paddling the stream. But it’s a short paddle, not really the married kind.

Unlike lust, romantic passion falls in love with what it finds. It doesn’t seek to transform the waterfall or dam the stream—not to contain it so much as to be part of its flow, a fellow journeyman over bumps and bruises so that pain and pleasure are shared, a bruise on one is a bruise on both, an open heart its unintended reward.

You say your lips are chapped and even if I don’t blame you for my cut knee you think I should perhaps blame you, so it’s as if I blamed you anyway. You are my husband,  you say, whose business it is to build dams and diversions so the stream of me  amounts to a pleasant paddle. It’s not your business to share to stream but only to correct it. 

We sit on opposite banks of me and discuss how to build a bridge-- how to reunite over me without getting wet. The bridge is something we want to build together but the water is what we’ve been trained to avoid. If I avoid myself, learn to rise above Alina, maybe we can have a good weekend and save the world to boot. 

Through the parenting acrobatics and daily trapese, we grow better together, like a leather shoe stretches to fit a foot. Like my favorite jeans, I wear you for five days in a row unwashed and love you more than I can say on that final day when your fabric is soft and unconstricting— my steps in tandem with the feel of you never once rubbing against me. 

You are my favorite unwashed jeans— the ones I like loose, low-slung, a little dirty. But there is laundry to do. A garden to plant. Bridges to build over imperfect selves.  Highway bypasses to route towards a perfect partnership.

But I think when this bridge is built, you’ll miss the feel of water over your bare feet, maybe miss the rawness of it. I think when we’ve finished constructing our marriage, you’ll miss the girl below.

Writer. Partner. Mother. Lover of lightning. Student of everything imaginable.